Pres-sing Difficulties

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We are in the final week of preparation for our end of season performance: long rehearsal on Wednesday, extra rehearsal Thursday, and a dress rehearsal on Saturday. We’re singing Bach’s Cantata No. 37. The Saturday rehearsal is with the orchestra. I’m way out of my depth.

My personal music background is primarily a couple decades of playing violin. And one semester of beginning voice. Fifteen years ago. I sang with the church choir for a year or so at that time. After a decade and a half, I rejoined the choir four months ago.

I still have a basic grasp of music theory (from a violinist’s point of view), and a rough of idea of the mechanics of musicality. Unfortunately, that’s about all that transfers. After twenty years of focusing entirely on treble clef, now I need to teach myself bass clef. Also, the layout of the music on the page is very different. As a violinist, the music is mostly laid out as a single part. You read it kind of like you read a page of text, left to right, top to bottom, one line after another. In other words, the only notes on the page are ones I play (with a couple of exceptions such as high-low split within a section). In vocal music, all four parts (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) and the accompaniment are on the page. It’s kind of like trying to read only the fourth line of every paragraph in quick succession.

Then comes the issue of sound production. Having been around various musicians all my life, I’ve heard lots about “breath support”. I even understood, in an academic way, what it meant. Convincing my body to do it is another matter. Doing it without letting the rest me tense up is also an interesting proposition. Why is breath support necessary? First, the obvious example, when was the last time you tried singing full voice for an hour and a half? Without breath support, I (at least) start losing my voice half an hour in. Another reason? Try singing at whisper levels without slipping into actually whispering AND with projection.

Then comes the intonation issues. I’m fairly good at determining in/out of tune at the register of the violin. I’m also decent at fixing it. Tuning not only a few octaves lower, but also adapting to a totally different sound characteristic is difficult at best. Now, after four months of tuning myself to a piano, we’re tuning to an organ and an orchestra.

After all the equipment differences, sound production, and intonation difficulties have been overcome. That should be it, right? AHAHAHAHAHA! Now comes pronunciation and enunciation. (Yes, there is a difference. Look it up.) I’m constantly amazed at how many ways there are to sing the sound ‘ah’. Oh, yes. Did I mention we’re singing this in German? Here’s the list of languages I’ve taken: Japanese, Russian, Kyrgyz, Latin. Here’s the list of languages I can usually sound out: French, Hebrew (with transliteration), Spanish. Oh look. No German.

Despite all these barriers, singing in a group is fun. The barriers make it challenging, make the effort worthwhile. Putting vocal music together is a challenging and multi-level puzzle, at the moment. Getting the mental components to line up with the physical components is a test of almost spiritual agility. When it work, the reward is nearly sublime. Even if I don’t particularly like the music being sung.

Putting this performance together has been frustrating, difficult, embarrassing, and a whole lot of fun. The icing on this rather bizarre cake? It turns out that my elementary school music teacher is one of the sopranos of the choir.

CDs, Baby!

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Here I am, selling CDs again. Don’t get me wrong, selling CDs can be fun. Very fun, in some cases. A lot depends on the venue. The venue determines selling style, customer types and attitudes, competing distractions, available equipment, customer flow, advertising/eye catchers, and a whole slew of additional factors.

I think my favorite is selling at conventions. The prospective customers are crazy fun, the parade of costumes is (usually) great to watch, the atmosphere is energetic. When selling at a convention, you’re usually part of a larger team. I think the smallest team I’ve worked with was a team of four, plus the musicians we worked for. That allowed us to have at least one person at the merc table during performances, plus two people selling at the performance venue. Outside the performance times, plus about an hour either side, we organized shifts so that each of us could attend panels and events during the day. On the downside, the hours are much longer (a 12 hour day is a short day), there’s much more equipment to carry, much more inventory, and in the crush, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. At times, you reach a point where time not only ceases to matter, it ceases to have any meaning.

After conventions, I like selling at faires. There’s a similar energy as at conventions, but much less concentrated. Assuming allergies are under control, I enjoy the outside. Even when it rains, we usually have at least some fun–not to mention stories to tell later. Since performances happen at stages across the faire grounds, we don’t carry much inventory at any one time. We restock backstage after each performance. Teams are smaller, usually two or three for the weekend, with at least two at each performance. Occasionally, if there’s an act someone desperately wants to see, one person can usually handle a single performance alone. The backstage camping is also fun…more fun, even, than the patron’s camp ground. Other than possible allergies, the main downsides to selling CDs at faires are the weather, and the physical toll being that active all day can take: lots of walking, lots of standing, lots of dancing, very little sitting.

Next on my list are what I call “venue sales”. These are single event, swim or drown jobs. There’s usually a lot of energy, and watching people dance and react to the performance is fun. There’s usually only one or two people selling at these events. There are a couple of major downsides to these events: 1) space is usually cramped, and 2) customers are usually buzzed, if not outright drunk. Drunk people are fun to watch, and sometimes mess with, but they can also be a pain as customers. Selling at venues is where most musicians make their money, though, so it’s a necessary type. It’s often an intense experience.

The last type of CD sales I do, or have done, is the pre-order sales at a live performance. The majority of these are either scholastic in nature (end of year concerts, etc.) or classical music a the pro, or semi-pro level. Inventory is non-existant, and equipment is pretty much limited to order forms, pens, iPad & Square for credit cards, and a cash box. This type of CD sales is my least favorite, though recently the type I do the most. I usually set up in the lobby, so I don’t actually get to hear the music. Of all the types of CD selling, this is both the easiest and most boring. There’s a lot of down time in which to write (this whole blog post, for instance). Salesmanship is limited because you’re selling to family and friends who attend. Except for truly spectacular performances, the energy tends to be low among audience members. At the scholastic performances, at least, most of what energy there is is aimed at collecting the performing kid and leaving.

I wish I had more opportunity to sell CDs at conventions. Unfortunately, most of the musicians I know either don’t perform at conventions, or already have a sales team and don’t have space for me. Ah, well. I’ll make do with having lots of time to write.

Into That Good Night

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It’s been a very long time since I posted something. My apologies. And I’m afraid this one will probably be depressing for any readers still out there. I won’t be offended if you read no further. It’s why I’m opening with this paragraph. And if you’re the type of person who thinks sharing to work your way through a tough time is merely complaining and whining, please leave. Now.

I almost walked out of choir warm-up today. Choir, church, community, there’s supposed to be a feeling of inclusiveness, yet everything we sang, warm-up pieces or service music, emphasized and re-emphasized my apartness, aloneness, and loneliness. It is really hard to sing with your throat tight with tears.

I tried to come up with an affirmative meditation for candle lighting. I failed.

This flame is a beacon, a call, a summons
To all who can hear.
It is a flare, a warning, an alert
That all is not well.
It is the light of hope, of community, of healing
That in me has been extinguished.

Transition is Difficult

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I didn’t actually get a chance to light a candle today. The choir provided the candle meditation music (“Cantique” by Faurre). But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t going through the motions in my mind during the reading. Without the candle and flame directly in front of me, I had to work at the words which usually come easily. This week’s meditation is at the end of the post.

On this day of transition, I’m spending time thinking about the effort it takes to move from one state to another. Today is Easter, the day of the ultimate transition in Christianity. And yet transition is with us every day. The forming or breaking of a relationship. A drastic change of mood. A switch of careers. Transitions bring pain, and yet there is promise of a new life with each. Keep in mind, I am not talking about the simple changes that life forces upon us. I’m talking about alterations in the very foundations of character and personality.

The day my last relationship ended, I died. The period of transition was hard to work through, and yet looking back at it, I do not regret it. Change hurts, but the penalty for not changing is the death of spirit. With every transition, two forces fight within me: the transformative force wars with the impulse of stubbornness. Thus far, with every major transition, I have been able to change and accept it…though rarely without a struggle. It is that struggle that causes a transition to be so painful.

And yet after the transition, there is a sense of completeness. Not happiness or contentedness, but a feeling that something has definitively ended for good or ill. Whether that ending is positive or not, it provides a solid foundation on which to continue life. When the ending is negative, it is often extremely difficult to begin building again. It is tempting to keep that chapter open and keep writing, hoping for a happier ending. But in doing so, the foundation for continuing life remains in flux, and the impossibility of building a future is overwhelming.

Transition can be broken into three broad periods: the initiating event, the interregnum, and the resolution. Sometimes the initiating event can be predicted, sometimes it can’t. I could predict that my last relationship would end (though the timing of the actual event was a bit awkward), but the request for a divorce several years ago came as a complete surprise. I’m not sure which is worse. I don’t think I really care. In both cases, it launched a period of wailing and gnashing of teeth, which eventually led to a period of self evaluation and exploration as I sought to reestablish my foundation. In the case of my divorce, the resolution occurred after years of the interregnum; but when it came, it came suddenly, like the breaking of a fever. After the more recent relationship, the interregnum was much shorter, but the resolution came slowly, like the healing of a broken body.

I look around and see people in all three periods of transition. Given my personal history and propensities, it is no surprise that it is very easy for me to see which people are still reeling from the initiating event, or are still on the downswing of the interregnum. It takes a little more effort for me to see when people begin the upswing, but there are fewer pleasures more poignant than being with someone (or even helping them) as they reach their resolution.

I saw one person in church today who appeared to have just gone through an initiating event. I won’t use exact words, but when I asked if this person was okay, s/he thanked me for my concern but couldn’t yet say that s/he couldn’t talk about it, much less actually talk. Given what I know about this person, I have a couple of guesses I think are pretty close. In any case, my thoughts, my love, and my prayers go out to this person in transition.

Today’s Meditation:

Let this beacon burn bright.
Light it be a guiding light
To those who seek.
Let it be a shelter
For those without peace.

Let this beacon burn bright.
Let it give warmth
To those in the cold.
Let it give strength
For climbing from the valley.

Let this beacon burn bright.
Let it promise hope
To those in despair.
Let it promise life
To dying souls.

UIL Basics

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For those who are new to the UIL system of judging and ranking, here’s a brief primer. The University Interscholastic League (UIL) is an organization whose purpose is to pit middle and high schools in Texas against each other in various arenas, ranging from sports to academics to fine arts. Each type of event has its own methods of judging. For fine arts (band, choir, theater, etc.) there is a panel of three judges. For the group music contests (as opposed to Solo & Ensemble) there is a concert component and a sight reading component (sometimes called “sight singing” for choirs). Each component has three judges.

The concert component consists of three rehearsed pieces, selected by the director of that particular group. One of the pieces must demonstrate the players’/singers’ control, and is usually a slow piece. One piece must demonstrate the group’s technical ability, and is usually fast. The third piece must demonstrate a style of music not yet demonstrated. For example, a choir may sing “The Old Carrion Crow” by Goetze (a piece with varying tempi and requiring very precise diction), “Widmung” by Schumann (a piece requiring precise and extended breath control), and “How Beautiful is Night” by Eddleman (an a capella piece, i.e. no instrumental backing). The judges make notes to provide feedback on the individual pieces and grade the performance as a whole. The grades range from 1 to 5 with 1 being the highest rating.

The sight reading component consists of being given music none of the students or their director have seen. The rules include: no singing/playing while looking through it, no talking (except for the director), and the director only has five minutes to review the piece and give instructions to the musicians. At time, the director is no longer allowed to talk, and the group sings or plays the music for the first and only time. For those without a music background, this is roughly akin to being handed a script, given five minutes of instruction from the director, and being expected to read it perfectly with voice inflections, rhythms, and appropriate foreign or regional accents. The three judges grade the results on a 1 to 5 scale as in the concert component.

Why is all this important? Aside from (hopefully) providing a boost to the director’s tenure (depending on results), new programs begin at sub-non-varsity. If the pieces are sufficiently difficult and every judge in both components awards them a 1 rating (called “sweepstakes”), that school’s program may choose to become classified in the next higher level (up to varsity). As the music program rises, the music becomes more difficult, but the musicians’ technical skills are also much better.

Keep in mind, this is a VERY brief overview of UIL. There are nuances and rules and opportunities I haven’t gone into. I’m sure I’ve probably got a couple details wrong as is, but the general idea is true.

Place Holder Post

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I was going to put up a blog with some of my thoughts and experiences today, but after recording UIL middle school choirs all day, then going to my own choir rehearsal, I’m too tired to think coherently. Same schedule tomorrow, except instead of rehearsal, I’m performing. Wheee! I’ll eventually get another post up. Friday, most likely, or Saturday. Thanks for not abandoning me.

This is Ridiculous

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I posted this link on my Facebook page this morning. The caption was: “Happy April Fool’s Day! Here’s a sample of what we’re doing in choir today…though the words have been changed a bit.” I wonder how many people thought it was an April Fool’s Day prank. Certainly the expressions in the congregation were of incredulity the first time we whacked our heads with our choir folders. There were a few “they’re doing what?” expressions. I even saw a few “they’re not….” faces. But my favorites were the hand-covering-gaping-mouth-and-eyes-popping reactions.

As an introduction to the sermon, it was perfect. The anthem for the service was a variation on Pete Seeger’s version of “Old Time Religion”. Trust a Unitarian Universalist church to celebrate the ridiculous in a service. The sermon itself was along the theme of what UU jokes reveal about us. Much laughter ensued.

For those (two) people who are anxious about what my words of reflection today were:

I look into this flame I’ve lit,
And I watch it
Laugh and dance
And sparkle and spit.
I say to myself and to God:
This.
This is what I want to be.

And for those who want to know which lyrics to “Old Time Religion” we used:

Chorus:
Give me that old time religion (3x)
And that’s good enough for me.

We will pray to Aphrodite
Even tho’ she’s rather flighty
And they say she wears no nightie
And that’s good enough for me.

O-old Odin we will follow
And in fighting we will wallow
Til we wind up in Valhalla
And that’s good enough for me.

(Chorus)

Let me follow dear old Buddha
For there is nobody cuter
He comes in plaster, wood or pewter
And that’s good enough for me.

We will pray with Zarathustra
Pray just like we useta
I’m a Zarathustra booster
And that’s good enough for me.

(Chorus)

We will pray with those old Druids
They drink fermented fluids
Waltzing naked thru the woo-ids
And that’s good enough for me.

I’ll arise at early morning
When the sun gives me the warning
That the solar age is dawning
And that’s good enough for me.

(Chorus) x2

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